The next day, I went to the police station, leaving Ms. Mosely with instructions to tell all potential clients that my time was currently occupied. It was another beautiful day in Manhattan. The people who walked by me couldn't have known of the tragic nature of my mission. It was better that way. I prefer my work to be done out of the spotlight. So when I walked into that police station, I made absolutely sure I wasn't followed...
"You're Ray Allison, aren't you?" The woman at the desk inquired of me. "The investigator."
I should have known someone would recognize me. I had been hoping to avoid undue attention here "Yes, I am. But I would prefer to keep my visit as confidential as possible," I responded in a low voice.
She nodded and told me that the chief of the NYPD, a Mr. Vincent Pirelli, would be available to speak with me soon. So I took a seat, picked up a copy of the morning paper, and started biding my time. I wasn't so much reading as I was deflecting attention. It's pretty well established that you don't disturb a man with s newspaper unless it's for a good reason. So, with this cover established, I tried to recall all the information I had picked up about the Sanford case up to this point.
I knew that Stephen Sanford was in his late fifties, had been wildly successful since inheriting the company from his own father, who had, through sheer tenacity and ambition, made the company a household name during the Great War. It was no secret that Stephen Sanford was a major supporter of military intervention. If this had been a business related killing, it would leave plenty of suspects. Communist sympathizers, anti-war groups, even anarchists. On the other hand, I knew from experience that many murders were committed by a person or persons close to the victim. It was certainly just as plausible that one of Mr. Sanford's servants could have been tbe culprit. Or even, and I hated that the thought even occurred to me, but as an investigator I had to consider every possible angle, that Miss Sanford herself was involved. This case was unusual even by my standards, and I knew I had to be prepared for layers of investigative work.
The reason I was here was quite simple. I needed something to go on if I was going to determine whether Miss Sanford's murder angle held any truth to it. This meant eyewitness testimony regarding the movements of all on the day of the incident, as well as photos. Photographs taken of the scene of the accident would assist my investigation greatly, as would any statements the police had detected. If the police had determined that there was nothing further to go on, then the photos would show what they had seen, and it would become clear whether it was as they said, or if it was all a sham investigation. I also knew it would be a good idea to have a look at their documentation. To see if anything had been overlooked.
"Mr. Allison? The chief will see you now."
I glanced up at the sound of my name and promptly folded my newspaper. It was time for me to take the first steps towards uncovering the truth, whatever it may be.
If you've never had the good fortune of meeting New York's chief of police, consider yourself lucky. Even before I walked in that office, I could smell the thick, overpowering smoke wafting out of it. In more ways than one, smoke was a good metaphor for Chief Pirelli, a squat, surly man in his late fifties with a vicious personality and a reputation for unpredictability and bending to whoever spoke to him last. It was a dangerous quality to have when just about everyone in this town had a motive to bribe him. Chief Pirelli styled himself as a man who ruled with an absolute iron fist. He was the silent influencer, the man behind the curtain. No arrest of great consequence in a murder investigation was made in this city until it had his stamp of approval. Known as much for questionable practices and possible corruption as for their legendary crime fighting exploits, I knew better than to simply trust the findings of the NYPD, especially with this man at the helm. The only thing that bothered me was this: if Gwen Sanford was right, and it was a cover up, then why? Why would the police have closed the case so quickly and declared it a suicide? If anything, wouldn't there be a greater motive to say it was murder? By saying suicide, they had essentially shoved the case under the rug. I'd been around murder cases long enough to know that the death of someone like Stephen Sanford doesn't get shoved under the rug unless it's for a good reason. I just didn't know what that reason was. The question hung over me, frustratingly just out of reach.
"Mr. Allison, I'm told you have an interest in the Sanford case?" The Chief spoke to me in an accent so thick I could hardly decipher it. His demeanor seemed casual as he took a long puff of his cigar. I had to figure out his angle before he figured out mine. He held all the cards right now. And if perhaps he thought he could deter me from my aim. But I had made a promise to Gwen that I would at least attempt to conduct this investigation, and I intended to keep that promise with or without the help of the police.
"Yes sir," I answered as calmly as I could. "As I'm sure you're aware, Chief Pirelli, I am a private investigator hired by my clients to conduct investigations for them when the police...ah, for lack of a better phrase, lag a bit behind."
Chief Pirelli gave me a sleazy grin that made me all at once uncomfortable and angry. "Well now, as I'm sure you're aware, Mr. Allison, we here at the department do our utmost to ensure justice is delivered in every case. But as they say, the wheels of justice grind slowly, and when that happens...well, that's what folks like you are for I suppose."
"I suppose you're right about that."
"Of course I am. I am curious, though. This particular case was closed in rather routine fashion. A clear finding of suicide. What interest does it hold for you?"
I leaned forward ever so imperceptibly. This was the point where I needed to make my case to the Chief for why I needed as many documents from the case file as possible.
"That's just it sir, I'm not so certain that suicide makes sense here."
The chief tossed his old cigar and lit up a new one. "What makes you say that, kiddo? You know I've been working in this department for over twenty years. I think I'd know a suicide when I see one."
He was trying to rattle me, get under my skin. I wouldn't let him. "Here's my working theory of the case sir. And keep in mind that I haven't seen any of the evidence yet. Only what's been reported in the papers. So Steve Sanford, his business partner Alistair Burton, and Sanford's chauffeur, Graham Godwin, go for a drive at about eleven in the morning. An hour later, the vehicle crashes into the tree and bursts into flames. Somehow, both Mr. Burton and Mr. Godwin managed to escape the car in time, leaving Mr. Sanford to his fiery demise."
"Yes, that's about how it went," the Chief concurred.
"Yet by the papers' own admission, the only firsthand account of the incident is that of Mr. Burton. The chauffeur hasn't spoken a word. We are to take Burton's word for it?"
"We can only make judgments based upon what is real, Mr. Allison. Not mere speculation."
"My theory, Chief Pirelli, is that Stephen Sanford did not in fact commit suicide that day. Something else occurred."
"What do you suppose it was then? An accident? Murder?" He gave me a look on that last word that told me that he wasn't taking my claims seriously. I knew I had to think of something quickly.
"I have a reasonable belief that it was murder, sir. And I think that one of the men in that car is responsible."
The chief seemed to size me up with his eyes. Perhaps now he was beginning to realize that I would not give up on my inquiry so easily. Of course, we both knew he was in the position of power. He alone had the ability to grant me access to the case file. And yet I was decidedly not going to participate in any acts of bribery. I would depend only on my own wits to get what I needed.
"That's an awful bold theory, Mr. Allison. You know I usually don't bother giving out police resources to private investigators who partake in such brazen levels of speculation."
"With all respect, sir-"
"I wasn't finished," Chief Pirelli said with another drag of his cigar. "I like you Ray, can I call you Ray?" He didn't wait for me to answer, and simply continued to talk. "I admire your determination, Ray. You remind me of my younger self in some ways. That's why even though I think you're completely deluded, I'll let you review the case file."
"Hell, take it all, we don't need it anymore. Far as I'm concerned, this case is closed. I see no harm in lettin' you poke around if it'll make you feel better."
Somehow I'd been expecting more of a fight from the chief than that. For him to suddenly give in to request aroused a great suspicion in me almost as bad as if he would have turned me down. Maybe worse. I'd walked into the station under the impression that the police might have covered the Dare case up. Now here was Chief Pirelli essentially giving me the keys to the kingdom. It didn't make any sense. This case was getting more peculiar all the time. But I had quickly put these thoughts out of my mind. My first task had been a resounding success. I had access to everything the police had uncovered about Sanford's death. Photos, reports, witness testimony, if any. Now that my business with the police was over for the foreseeable future, it was time to check out the Sanford estate...
The whole drive to the estate, I found my thoughts consumed by the case, by Gwen Sanford, by the strange behavior of the police. Part of me was hoping there was no crime, that I could pack up and go home and take on some other cases, more straightforward ones. And yet...I have to admit that another part of me was hoping for the opposite. That there was more. That my instincts weren't wrong. That I would get to see Miss Sanford again. I twirled the dial on the radio until it stopped on a station playing some lively jazz numbers. I guess I was hoping that some music could help me forget the thoughts I was having. It didn't.
About half an hour later, I had arrived on Long Island, and it wasn't long after that when I began to see the towering and elegant Victorian mansions which were the telltale sign that I was nearing my destination. Finally, I found the specific one I was looking for. It wasn't difficult to recognize. Everyone by now knew what the Sanford home looked like. I suppose I would have to say that it's defining feature was the luscious garden, which Miss Sanford was currently tending to as I pulled up in the driveway. I knew according to local lore that the garden first been planted by the Sanfords several years ago to support the home front during the early stages of the war. After Mrs. Sanford's unfortunate passing, Mr. Sanford had taken the utmost consideration that it should be tended to in memory of his wife. Now that both her parents were gone, I realized, this was Gwen's last connection to both of them. I could see it in her eyes as she slowly stood and waited for me, the agony of being orphaned, the desperation to have closure. It only hardened my resolve to do whatever I could for her. I quickly disembarked from the car, bringing the box of documents I had obtained from the police with me.
"Ray, I'm so glad to see you. I...well I had started to wonder if you were going to show up."
"I'm sorry I took so long. You know how the police can be."
"Trust me, I know. Is that the case file?" She gestured to the box I held.
"Yes, it is."
She nodded. "We'd better talk inside."
So I followed her down the path through the great wooden doors into the estate. It was as grandiose on the inside as it appeared on the outside. I found myself looking around the wide foyer, finding everything rather overwhelming. A chandelier hung just above and in front of the door, a sort of Statue of Liberty, welcoming me to this foreign land. Just beyond the foyer to the left was the parlour, with its comfortable couches and tables practically inviting the company of the elite and wealthy, and the walls were decorated with the finest artwork money could buy. It also had a state of the art radio and a record player next to a large shelf lined with disc sleeves. This room must have entertained many powerful individuals, I realized. It felt so strange standing here where they once had, it made me feel small and out of place. Directly ahead was a grand staircase leading to the labyrinthine second floor. I had a feeling the other rooms weren't going to be so easy to identify. Fortunately, Gwen offered to give me a tour, to which I eagerly agreed. Offically, it was common sense seeing as how the layout of the house could prove critical to the theory of what took place on that fateful morning. Unofficially, I had never set foot inside a place so regal in appearance. It took my breath away. Gwen led me up the elegantly carpeted staircase which branched off in two directions that both met in here. In other words, the only way to get from one side of the upstairs to the other was to come here where they were adjoined. Maybe that was a detail to take note of. Maybe it was nothing. At this point in the case, I knew I had to keep my mind open to all possibilities.
I found that Gwen was a natural tour guide. Not that I needed much convincing to be impressed, but she multiplied that feeling exponentially. We started with the left side of the staircase. These rooms were mostly reserved for Mr. Sanford's business and pleasure. There was an office which Gwen explained to me would normally have been piled up with paperwork. Elsewhere, there was a large room with a pool table and a mini bar, which was popular for whenever her father had guests. And then there was Mr Sanford's room itself, the master bedroom. At first glance the room seemed somewhat unremarkable. It was decorated opulently with hung paintings as with the foyer. Its defining feature was a tall cabinet on the wall opposite the bed, the center of which held a small screen situated above a dashboard of dials and buttons. I was vaguely familiar with the new technology of television, which was the latest fascination of the rich and powerful. I suppose I shouldn't have beem surprised that Mr. Sanford owned a set. The room seemed haunted. Someone had slept here until very recently. Now the room was vacant, but I felt a presence. A powerful presence that demanded justice. Was it Sanford? My own thoughts and fears projecting onto the deceased? Whatever it was, I knew that presence would follow me until I found the truth.
"It's so strange to come here and know that he'll never sleep in that bed again," Gwen said softly. "We disagreed so often, we argued, we shouted. I often wondered why I stayed at all. Now I just wish I could have at least had a chance to tell him goodbye."
I stood next to Gwen in silence for several moments. I thought about reaching out to her, telling her that things were going to be all tight, but before I could contemplate this further, I felt her press herself against me, quietly sobbing into my chest. And I just held her, in that moment, it was the only thing I wanted to do. To show her that she wasn't alone.
Gwen continued to hold my arm as we resumed the tour. I knew she hasn't completely recovered from her precious episode, but I decided not to bring it up again. There was nothing more I could do but give her space to grieve. On the right side of the second floor, I found out that Gwen's room was the second nearest to the staircase. The nearest was used by Stephen Sanford's personal chauffeur, Graham Godwin, presumably so he could ready whenever he was called upon. It was rare, I knew, for a servant to get his own room in a mansion like this. Godwin must have been highly regarded and trusted by Mr. Sanford to be given this honor. As I was not yet actively searching for evidence, I simply allowed myself to take in each room as we passed by it. Mr. Godwin's was, as expected, rather simplistic and plain when compared to the rest of the house, but even so there was still an elegance, understated perhaps, but present. It was neat and tidy. Whether that was because Mr. Godwin kept it that way or because the Sanfords' other servants looked after it wasn't clear, but I made a mental note of it all.
"And this is my room," Gwen said as she opened the door to reveal a comfortable looking room with lavishly crafted walls, a cosy bed, a reading chair and desk, and large glass doors draped with curtains that were currently drawn back leading out to a balcony. It held all the trappings of wealth, yet Gwen seemed almost ashamed of it.
"All this money and what did it get me?" She whispered so quietly that I barely heard, a question that appeared directed more to herself than to me, and again I was struck by the magnitude of the loss she must be enduring.
There was also a music room, of which the centerpiece was a sleek black Steinway grand piano that glistened in the afternoon sum. I resisted the opportunity to inform Rachel that I also played the piano on occasion, as it did not seem like the right moment at all. I also noticed several other instruments lined around the wall, including violins, cellos, and a guitar.
"I've learned how to play most of these. My father insisted on it. Do you play anything?"
"A bit of piano," I offered, since she had asked.
She smiled despite the sadness in her eyes. "Maybe you'll play for me sometime."
The exchange was brief, and within moments we moved on.
Our last stop was a library with several shelves of books and a table looking out on another spectacular view. I set the box of evidence on the table and set off to explore the room with Gwen. It was filled with books on just about every possible subject, from classical literature to historical to war to even modern murder-mysteries, a topic that Gwen confessed to me was of her personal fascination. Her despondent mood of earlier seemed to have cleared up when we began talking about this. It lifted my own spirits considerably to see it. I wanted to see her happy all the time.
"Who's your favorite?" I asked as we browsed the selection.
"Agatha Christie certainly," Gwen replied with enthusiasm.
"Ah, Mr. Poirot?" I asked, having little more than a general knowledge of this particular subject, and knowing only that he was the most famous of Christie's creations.
"Everybody says he's their favorite, but personally I have a preference for Miss Marple," Gwen answered with another one of her subtle smiles.
We kept walking, slower now, taking each step with deliberation. "What is it about Miss Marple, then?"
Gwen stopped suddenly, as though something on the bookshelf had caught her eye. Sure enough, her soft fingers gently knifed through the formidable wall of volumes and curled around one particular book, which she delicately removed and held in her hands to show me. It was a Christie novel, Murder at the Vicarage.
"She's underestimated. Whether it's because she's old, or a woman, or both. Always underestimated. Yet more often than not, she's right in the end."
I was beginning to understand Gwen's state of mind in coming to my office yesterday. Perhaps there was a part of her that, like Miss Marple, had that elusive sixth sense telling her something wasn't right. Maybe even if I'd said no, she would have done some digging on her own. No doubt she possessed full confidence that she had the willpower and intelligence to simply solve this case by herself.
"It's dangerous business, Gwen," I cautioned her. "And I'm not saying that because you're a woman. It's your father. You know as well as I do that he wasn't exactly an angel. Suppose you're right, and he was murdered. He had many poential enemies. Powerful enemies. People we might not even know about."
Gwen's eyes met my own. And I saw the passion burning in them. An emerald spark of flame that could have burned a hole through me. "I'm fully aware of my father's...questionable practices, and I disagreed with most of them. I never liked the idea of a company whose entire aim is to profit off of war."
"Then you understand the risk you've taken just by contacting me?"
She suddenly took my hands in hers. "I do understand. I went to you because I believe you're the only one who can help me solve my father's murder."
"Now hold on a minute, let's not get ahead of ourselves. You're my client, Miss Sanford. It's my responsibility to get justice for you, but I also take it as personal matter that you should be safe. And I just couldn't bear the burden on my conscience if I let something happen to you."
Gwen subtly but noticeably closed the distance between us, we were barely inches apart. I felt as though I were in a trance-like state, an outside observer watching this all take place with no input of my own. That great yearning in my heart for companionship had never been so strong as it was then. But I feared that my words may have angered her. A bad relationship with a client could not only lead to lost business, but a failed investigation. A murderer set loose.
"Can I confess something to you, Mr. Allison?"
"I like you. I don't know what it is about you, but I like you. You're not like the men my father tried to pair me off with. You have empathy, you have feelings. That's why you don't want me in harm's way. But you must understand this case concerns me, and my family. I want to do my part to find whoever did this. In fact I insist upon it. And if that is not agreeable to you and you want to leave, I understand. Truthfully I was going to try to find answers before I came to you and I will go on alone if it comes to that, but I'd much rather we work on it together."
I sighed. I guessed there wasn't going to be any talking her out of it. Anyways, I knew she was right, she had a personal stake in the case, I couldn't deny that. And I did need her expertise on the family. One thing you learn quickly as a PI is that working alone is best because emotions don't get in the way. You don't have to worry about being distracted. This was another sign from fates, a final chance to say I was out. But Gwen...she was special. She wasn't the uptight rich girl I thought she'd be. She was kind and caring and deceptively intelligent to those who might have made the same assumptions I did. The truth was, I wasn't ready to part ways with Gwen. I didn't think I ever would be. So what could I do? I ignored the sign and went full speed ahead. I accepted her offer.
"Fine, we'll work on it together."
"Good," Gwen smiled and spoke with comfidence, but underneath that smile I could sense a great deal of relief on her part. She had been genuinely afraid that I might walk away right then and there. I knew in my heart that wouldn't happen, I couldn't bring myself to abandon her. I gestured back to the table where I left the box of evidence.
"Let's get started. We've got a lot of evidence to review."
Gwen had agreed, and so we slowly reversed our course to the way we'd come. It's funny how your perspective on a room, on a case, on a person, changes so drastically just by walking in the opposite direction. When we came in, I'd got the impression of a grand old dusty library. Now, with the sun shining brightly through the massive windows, imbuing all bookshelves and walls touched with a golden light that only increased its regal appearance. It was like something out of a dream. A room of mystique and wonder. Just like the woman walking beside me. What I didn't realize at the time, the detail my mind alwasy goes back to on this day, is that during that whole walk, we never let go of each other's hand.